According to the curators of the Rijksmuseum's Vermeer exhibition, the artist’s main patron was probably a woman - one Maria de Knuijt, the wife of Pieter van Ruijven.
For decades it has been assumed that Van Ruijven, a wealthy Delft citizen, was the patron. New research set out in the show's exhibition catalogue reveals that De Knuijt had much closer and longer links to Vermeer than her husband.
Half of the artist’s entire oeuvre, at least 20 paintings, were bought by de Knuijt including The Milkmaid (1658-59, Rijksmuseum) and Girl with a Pearl Earring De Knuijt began to buy Vermeer's work in around 1657, the time when the artist was switching from painting conventional religious and mythological subjects to creating his scenes of young women in interiors, so may have played a role in influencing his direction.
The exhibition co-curator Pieter Roelofs points out that De Knuijt, who was nine years older than Vermeer, was a very close neighbour. Her 1655 will records that she bequeathed 500 guilders to the artist.
Roelofs points out in the exhibition catalogue that in 17th-century Dutch society “as lady of the house she [De Knuijt] will have taken the lead in furnishing their home and purchasing paintings”. Pictures were then considered “household goods and thus part of domestic consumption...everything points to De Knuijt being the collector of the [Vermeer] paintings”.
Van Ruijven died in 1674 and his wife in 1681. Their daughter Magdalena was deceased in 1682 and after her death an estate inventory recorded 20 paintings by Vermeer. One was in the kitchen, possibly The Milkmaid. Two others were in the cellar.
The catalogue features all 37 of the works attributed to Vermeer and essays with new insights about his social position, his household, his faith, his technique and the influence of his environment on his art. The book is edited by Pieter Roelofs and Gregor J.M. Weber with contributions by Bart Cornelis, Bente Frissen, Sabine Pénot, Pieter Roelofs, Friederike Schütt, Christian Tico Seifert, Ariane van Suchtelen, Gregor J.M. Weber and Marjorie E. Wieseman.
The book has proved to be as popular as the Rijksmuseum show with the first edition selling out in mid February prior to its release. The second edition is available to order here.